Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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Symbolic interactionism

core definition

Symbolic interactionism is an approach to sociology that focuses on interpreting the meanings that people develop through their interaction with others.

explanatory context

Symbolic interactionism assumes that actions and self identity are determined by interaction with other people. Symbolic interactionism attempts to identify people's meanings and how the interactive process impacts on the the meanings people have and the subsequent actions that they take.

Symbolic interactionism is the study of the relationship between self and society that focuses on the symbolic processes of communication between participants.

There are several varieties of symbolic interactionism with different approaches to empirical research and different epistemological presuppositions. Symbolic interactionism derives from the earlier interactionist approach of the ‘Chicago School’. This took two forms.

The first, inspired by W. I. Thomas, was based on the philosophical tradition of James and Cooley among others. It attempted to relate attitudes to values in a fairly ‘scientific’ manner and was similar to Weber’s approach which linked meanings and causes (see page 141). This approach has been developed in conventional ethnography in the work of people such as Howard Becker.

The second approach drew on G. H. Mead’s theories of the self and was supposedly the basis of Herbert Blumer’s development of symbolic interactionism which was more concerned with meanings than with causes. This approach has been further developed in the work of Ervin Goffman and the ethnomethodologists and can be seen in the development of phenomenological ethnography.

An alternative tradition of symbolic interactionism also flourished at Iowa University and this tends to be more overtly positivistic. It is not widely used or referred to these days.

Varieties of Symbolic Interactionism

Blumerian Symbolic Interactionism

Herbert Blumer coined the term symbolic interactionism and his is regarded as the core approach by many commentators. Blumer claims that it draws directly on the pragmatism of George Herbert Mead (although this has been challenged by critics). As Blumer was at the University of Chicago (as was Mead) and because he is seen to have had a considerable impact on the development of a symbolic interactionist approach at the University of Chicago and by graduates of the University elsewhere, Blumerian symbolic interactionism is often referred to as the 'Chicago School of Symbolic Interactionism'.

The core of Blumer's approach is encapsulated in his three propositions. First, humans act toward people and things based upon the meanings that they have given to those people or things. Second, language gives humans a means by which to negotiate meaning through symbols. Third, thought modifies each individual's interpretation of symbols.


Bogdan and Taylor (1975) presuppose that Blumer's approach, which is rooted in Median interactionism, constitutes the definitive view of symbolic interactionism (and one that Becker, Hughes and Geer supposedly adhered to).

For these theorists, people are constantly in a process of interpretation and definition as they move from one situation to another.... a situation has meaning only through people's interpretations and definitions of it. Their actions, in turn, stem from this meaning. Thus this process of interpretation acts as the intermediary between any predisposition to act and the action itself. (Bogdan and Taylor, 1975, p. 15)

Thus people define situations in different ways depending on their life experiences and perspectives. Through communication a shared persepctive may emerge. For symbolic interactionists interpetation is the key.

While people may act within the framework of an organization, it is the interpretation and not the organization which determines action. Social roles, norms, values, and goals may set conditions and consequences for action, but do not determine what a person will do. (Bogdan and Taylor, 1975, p. 15)

The symbolic processes of Blumer are used to focus on meaning. However, in practice, Becker, Geer and Hughes do not simply adopt a meaning-interpretive approach. Indeed, they tend to be more concerned with establishing an 'objective' basis for participant observation than a phenomenological one, advocated by Bogdan and Taylor (1975). In some respects the work of Becker and Geer, for example, are more akin to the earlier Chicago School participant observation studies of William Whyte, whose approach was more allied with structural functionalism than with phenomenology. See Becker and Geer on participant observation.


Dramaturgical Approach

The dramaturgical approach to symbolic interactionism takes more-or-less literally the idea that 'all the world's a stage' and assumes that people put on an act in face-to-face situations.

Such acting is usually viewed as activity designed to maintain face and avoid embarrassment.

This approach owes much to Ervin Goffman (Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and Sociology, University of Pennsylvania). He did field research in the Shetland Islands (1949–1951) and received his PhD from Chicago in 1953. Then moved to University of Califonia)

Goffman's interests have centred on the structure of face-face interaction. His book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) sets out his veiws on impression management, while in Behaviour in Public Places (1963) and Relations in Public (1971) he analyses the rules of conduct applicable in streets, parks, restaurants, theatres, etc.

In effect, Goffman offers a variety of interactionism which sets him between symbolic interactionism (at least of the Blumerian variety) and ethnomethodology. Fisher and Strauss (1979, p. 479) noted that Goffman is not always seen as an interactionist although he is usually thought of in that tradition. However, they argue, it is not just that he writes about selves, or that he was trained at Chicago and influenced by Hughes, or that he 'does such fine-grained analyses of interaction' that makes him a (proto-) interactionist. There are, they argue, certain persistent themes in his work that 'resonate with interactionist concern'.


Goffman is vehemently anti-determinist. An early example of his work that illustrates this is 'The Underlife of a Public Institution' (Goffman, 1961a), in which Goffman illustrates that people in institutions avoid being completely controlled and coerced by the institution. This avoidance also includes a rejection of complete internal personal commitment. He argues that social structures provide the 'material for the evolution of particular kinds of selves', however this is a long way from a complete determinism of action and construction of self.

Effectively, Goffman is arguing that structural conditions are necessary but not sufficient for the explanation of the emergence of social selves and human action. Central to Goffman's notion is the role played by interactional rules. Such rules mediate behaviour. These interactional rules are the point of departure for the dramaturgical metaphor.

Central to this perspective is the idea that people attempt to 'manage' the impressions that others receive of them. Effectively, each person puts on a show for others. As far as possible, Goffman maintains, people attempt to control the impressions others get. This they do by carefully playing out interactional rules that limit the kinds of things that can be done in interactional situations. Goffman talks of people performing singly or in teams, of playing parts, or adopting routines (in the stage sense) that make use of settings and props; of actors 'on stage' and also performing in the wings. The outcome of the performance is an imputation by the audience of a particular kind of self to the individual. This imputation is not simply the result of the substantive element of the performance but depends as much on the 'expressive, ritualistic or ceremonial elements' in the performance. (See Meltzer et al., 1975).

Performing is part of the process of 'defining the situation', which enables others to know what is to be expected of the performer and of themselves. The individual will attempt to present him or herself in a way that will best serve the required ends. Performance is, thus, directed to projected outcome or consequences. [There are clear links here with Schutzian phenomenology]. In his 'Interaction Ritual' Goffman (1967) argues that people strive to interact in such a way that they 'save face'. That is, there is as an equilibrium position, a desire to mutually avoid embarrassment etc.

Goffman analyses the nature of deference and demeanour and argues that the former is the mechanism by which regard or respect is displayed while the latter provides the means to establish or create an image of oneself. Embarrassment itself is, Goffman argues, a signal that the 'face losing' actor has infringed interaction rules, has lost control of the performance and generally proved 'unworthy', but with the underlying implication that next time things will be rectified. One area in which the establishment and maintenance of 'face' is an exciting affair is in the world of gambling, or other such areas where avoidable risks are confronted.

Similar to ethnomethodologists, Goffman recognises that the norms regulating social conduct are usually ignored, or taken-for- granted. Goffman also reflects Blumer's position, then, in arguing that roles are not the sole determinant of action. Taking into account the 'project' of the actor, both Blumer and Goffman assert that norms and roles are only the framework within which human interaction occurs and is not its determinant. However Goffman differs from Blumer when he introduces his notion of role distance, that is, the difference between the prescribed role and the performance. This element was not really considered by earlier interactionists, they gave no extensive consideration to impression management, insincerity, hypocrisy and so on.

Goffman (according to Meltzer et al., 1975, p. 71) 'advances a significant reconstruction of the image of human beings offered in symbolic interactionism'. The individual, then, appears to be more flexible in Goffman's view than in most symbolic interaction. Blumer's 'I' and 'Me' distinction is reinforced in Goffman's account, with the 'I' being more problematic. However, Goffman never goes all the way to a 'unitary' account of self and social action, that is, he accepts that people are not totally free, that their development is mediated by reference to societal rules.

Goffman's research shows considerable concern with 'deviancy', especially 'mental abberation'. Goffman argues that we have a lot to learn from extreme behaviour, that it should not be ignored or 'put down'. Everyone is a 'normal deviant', the very existence of norms leads to that conclusion. Even psychotic activity, Goffman argues, is first of all a guide to interaction. As Fisher and Strauss (1979, p. 481) note,'morally and rhetorically, Goffman is on the side of the mentally ill, the stigmatized, and the deviant against the stigmatizers, the accusers and the professional moralizers'.

Iowa School

See Iowa School

Symbolic interactionism and participant observation

See Becker and Geer's views on participant observation

Symbolic interactionism and pragmatism

There has been considerable debate about the pragmatist roots of symbolic interactionism. Blumer maintains that symbolic interactionism grows out of the work of George Herbert Mead at Chicago. Others claim that mead's influence is a retrospective construction by Blumer and others and that he had far less impact on Chicago interactionism than, for example, Cooley or other pragmatists. Blumer, though, taught Mead's social psychology courses when mead dies and clearly Mead had an impact on how Blumer developed his version of symbolic intreactionism. For more details see Blumer: The Blumer-Bales Debate



analytical review

Sociology Guide.Com (2011) states:

The term symbolic interactionist used because it is through symbols that meanings, motives and attributes are conveyed. Thus an understanding of symbols can help in understanding the meanings conveyed by actors involved in the interacting situation. For example a cross x may symbolize a barbarian method of execution or a religious movement. V-sign signifies victory where Winston Churchill elevated the gesture to a symbol of national aspiration. The assumptions underlying symbolic interactionism are The individual and society are regarded, as inseparable for the individual can become a human being only in a social context. Human beings are viewed as acting on the basis of meaning that they give to the objects and events rather than simply reacting either to external stimuli such as social forces or internal stimuli such as drives. Meanings arise from the process of interaction rather than being simply present at the outset. To some degree meanings are created, modified, developed and changed within interactive situation rather than being fixed and preformed. Meanings are the result of interpretative procedures employed by actors within interactions context by taking the role of others; actors interpret the meanings and intentions of others. By means of mechanism of self-interaction, individuals modify or change definitions of their situation rehearse alternative course of interactions and consider their possible consequences. These meanings that guide actions arise in the context of interaction via a series of complex interpretative procedures. The methodology of symbolic interactionism as advocated by Herbert Blumer demands that the sociologist must immerse himself in the area of life that he seek to investigate. Rather than attempting to fill data into predefined categories, he must attempt to grasp the actor's view of social reality. Since action is directed by actor meanings the sociologist must catch the process of interpretation through which the actors construct their action. This means, he must take the role of the acting unit whose behavior he studies.


Crossman (2013) states:

Symbolic interaction theory analyzes society by addressing the subjective meanings that people impose on objects, events, and behaviors....Although symbolic interactionism traces its origins to Max Weber's assertion that individuals act according to their interpretation of the meaning of their world, the American philosopher George Herbert Mead introduced this perspective to American sociology in the 1920s.

The University of Strathclyde (undated) states:

Symbolic interactionism is a social theory based on the work of George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) and his student Herbert Blumer (1900 – 1987). It conceives of the self as a social rather than psychological entity. Human behaviour is understood as social behaviour made up of ‘social acts’. Symbolic interactionism can be described as: 'An approach in sociology which focuses on the interaction of human beings and the roles they have. The model of the person in symbolic interactionism is active and creative rather then passive' (Holloway 1997:150)....

Within symbolic interactionism, then, understanding of the social world takes a very different starting point from that of the Scientific/Realist perspective. It is about understanding other people’s meanings, understanding the relationship between people who are ‘meaningful’. The conceptualisation of the individual in symbolic interactionism is that of the ‘meaning maker’, imposing order and meaning onto an essentially meaningless social and physical world.


Raynet Sociology Glossary (undated) states:

Symbolic interactionism: A theoretical school or orientation in sociological social psychology. An approach that has evolved principally from social behaviorism and the writings of George Herbert Mead and stresses the symbolic nature of human interaction, linguistic and gestural communication (all reality is held to be communicated reality), and particularly the role of language in the formation of mind, self, and society. In sum, social reality and human behavior, for the symbolic interactionist, is conceptualized as symbolic, communicated, and subjective in both form and content.

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines:

Dramaturgy: A view of social life as a series of dramatic performances akin to those that take place in the theater. (Goffman).

Symbolic interaction: The distinctive human ability to relate to one another, not only through gestures but also through significant symbols.


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines symbolic interactionism as:

A theoretical approach in sociology which focuses on social reality as constructed through the daily interaction of individuals and places strong emphasis on the role of symbols (gestures, signs, and language) as core elements of this interaction.

associated issues

Huber's claims that symbolic interactionism is inherently biased

Huber (1973) analyses the pragmatic underpinnings of symbolic interaction. She argues that, despite all the debate on symbolic interaction, no real assessment of the bias that necessarily derives from the perspective has been made.

She argues that the pragmatic underpinning means that the search for emergent theory leads to a theoretical conceptualisation which is rooted in the observers/sociologists preconceptions. [The implication is that emergent theory cannot be transcendent (critical)].

She argues that the epistemology of symbolic interaction derives from the pragmatic model of Dewey and Mead which, influenced by Hegel, involved an evolutionary, holistic view of reality. For Hegel and the pragmatists, progress was inevitable as people were naturally rational.

Huber argues further that for the symbolic interactionists and their pragmatic forbears that an approach to theory should (given their holistic evolutionary approach) not reflect the 'hypothetico-deductive' model of physical science for this involves formulating theory prior to research (and may thus bias the research). Rather, the appropriate model is the Hegelian logico-theoretic model. This allows theory to emerge from research. In social science participation in situations allows for the participants to contribute to theory.

This Huber, argues is an ambiguous theoretical production process. The social givens of the researcher and the participants serve as a theoretical framework, she argues, giving the research a bias that reflects the social perspective of the researcher and the distribution of power in the interactive setting.


Blumer's comment on Huber and Huber's reply

Blumer (1973) states that neither he nor Mead ever proposed the absurdity of approaching research with a blank mind, which is how Blumer interprets Huber (1973). Rather, Blumer says that both he and Mead regard research as beginning with a problem. In effect, Blumer says, Huber's position reduces to asserting the primacy of a 'logico-theoretic component'. This, in itself, Blumer notes, does not constitute an 'objective/neutral' approach. Blumer argues that Huber, in line with the ‘dominant methodological position in our discipline today’ proposes the primacy of theory over empirical data. Blumer proposes an interrelationship between the two, and cites Darwin as the exemplary case.

Secondly, Blumer asserts, contrary to Huber's caricature of symbolic interactionism, that 'There is no reason why the investigator who follows the symbolic interactionist approach cannot test his assertions and hypotheses about his empirical world by a careful, continuous examination of that world; his position is no different from that of Darwin or scores of competent ethnographers.' (Blumer, 1973, p. 798).

Huber’s (1973a) reply to Blumer simply reasserts her 'scientistic' perspective and reinforces the epistemological gulf between those who see the possibility of 'objective knowledge' and those who appreciate the value-laden nature of observation (to some degree). The discussion is rather like that between the inductivists and the various layers of falsificationists in the philosophy of science. [I.e. it goes only part of the way]. Huber notes that 'Logical analysis of the SI model shows that its use gives the researcher no rules to decide whose picture of reality is most meaningful, and hence allows the intrusion of power and personality factors into the picture that is drawn.' (Huber, 1973a, p. 800).


Other critics of Huber's analysis

Schmitt (1974), an ex-student of Manford Kuhn at Iowa, criticises Huber for providing a damaging attack on symbolic interactionism without fully appreciating its approach. She fails to distinguish symbolic interactionism from participant observation, Schmitt claims that 'Even the Chicago School adherents are quite willing to use any strategy that will provide a valid image of the actor's perspectives.' (Schmitt, 1974, p. 453). Further, not all symbolic interactionism relies on 'emergent theory', notably the work done by the Iowa school, especially Manford Kuhn. (See Manis and Meltzer, 1972). Nor are the concepts Huber regards as unclear, so unclear to others, indeed they are frequently clearly defined. Finally, not all symbolic interactionists are merely disaffected quantitative researchers. Indeed, Schmitt argues, there are scientifically attractive features about symbolic interactionism.

He remarks that while opponents of symbolic interactionism regard the fact that it is not a theory as a disadvantage, symbolic interactionists themselves see flexibility in their approach. For Schmitt, symbolic interactionism is 'a sociological social psychological orientation or perspective, i.e. a broad set of interrelated concepts, ideas, findings and assumptions about the two-way relationship between man and the socio-cultural system'. (Schmitt, 1974, p. 453).

Schmitt questions Huber's essentially naive view of bias in social research and argues that, in fact, participant observation as a strategy adopted by symbolic interactionists reflects the general methodological concerns of triangulation. Further that to assume that researchers can be objective in the sense of starting with a tabula rasa ignores the contextualisation of knowledge. He argues that, on the contrary, symbolic interactionism is aware of this and actually uses it to the benefit of knowledge production in that the interactionist approaches the subject matter with an open mind rather than a pre-fixed set of hypotheses. Bias, he suggests, is inevitable to some degree, but symbolic interactionism is nor more prone to it than any other perspective and, indeed, through the development of additional and interrelated studies bias can be exposed.

Nonetheless, Schmitt is not arguing for a fundamental reconceptualisation of the essentially positivist view of science, as embodied in the falsificationist model, as adapted to the probabilistic concerns of social science. Indeed, he suggests that while participant observation cannot guarantee validity in any given instance it does in a general context and that science has never opted for more than probability statements. Ultimately, he agrees with Huber in noting that prediction is the ultimate test of science. Such predictive potential would only be possible through the cumulative development of the discipline which is the key to its scientific status. In short, it is absurd to think of symbolic interactionism, or any other method as a search for ‘truth’, and therefore, Huber's proposition that symbolic interactionism attempts such a discovery in the sense she attributes to the 'pragmatics of old', is quite misleading.

In conclusion Schmitt argues that Huber did not evaluate the positive aspects of emergent theory nor the weaknesses of the traditional testing procedure.

Stone et al. (1974) provide a devastating critique of Huber. They argue that Huber's analysis presupposes the authoritativeness of quantitative techniques, which they dispute. They state that they have found eighty-three points of disagreement with her article and there follows a selection of these which points to the polemic, the misattribution, and the distortion of theory evident in her article.

The most significant part of their critique points to the inadequacy of her assessment of the theoretical development of the epistemological core of symbolic interactionism. Her designation, which links Mead to Hegel, is easily revealed to be simplistic. Not only does she fail to grasp Hegel’s ideas, she is dismissive rather than critically analytic of Mead’s. This analysis, though, only points to the failures in Huber, rather than to some assessment of the thought of Mead and its origins and its relevance to symbolic interactionism. What is clear, though, from the tone of the article, is that Mead was of central importance to the theoretical development of symbolic interactionism. His role and his thought is taken for granted. The defence of Mead is in terms of, on the one hand, the differences between Huber's static, mechanistic notion of pragmatism and Mead's dynamic view, and on the other, between Hegel's idealism and Mead's pragmatism.

They conclude 'Huber has selectively, sometimes inappropriately, incorrectly and/or misleadingly cited literature in order to attest to her preference for a positivistic mode of social research.... Huber's article is actually a revival of the old debate about the merits of positivism which reaches as far back as the turbulent reception with which the discipline greeted the prescriptions of Lundberg and Dodd in the early 1930s and 1940s.' (Stone, et al., 1974, p. 461).

Huber's reply to critics

Hubers's (1974, p. 463) reply is mainly a point-by-point engagement that reaffirms Huber's position. In many places it is 'microscopic' in perspective. It nowhere adequately addresses the 'theory laden nature of observation'. In conclusion, Huber argues (citing Swanson, 1967 [1961]) that as a scientific model emergent theory remains emergent. This is due to Mead's theoretical position. 'Mead provides a way to formulate important aspects of social psychological problems but suggests few actual problems for investigation. Some of his most relevant premises are untestable and many which are testable don't fall in the realm of social psychology. As a sociological perspective, however, Mead's view alerts researchers to important aspects of human behavior. Some of the most durable work in sociology has been done by students of Blumer or Kuhn.... Neverthless, the symbolic interactionist recipe for doing sociology is dangerously close to radical subjectivism.' (Huber, 1974, p. 466).

related areas

See also


Chicago School

Researching the Real World Section


Bogdan, R. and Taylor, S.J., 1975, Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods: A phenomenological approach to the social sciences. New York, Wiley.

Blumer, H., 1973, ‘A note on symbolic interactionism’, American Sociological Review, 38(6), pp. 797–98.

Crossman, A., 2013, 'Symbolic interaction theory: an overview' available at, accessed 29 May 2013, page accessible but changed 8 December 2016, quoted material still unchanged 29 December 2016.

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, ©Frank Elwell, last updated January 1998, page not available 20 December 2016.

Fisher, B. and Strauss, A., 1979, 'Interactionism' in Bottomore, T and Nisbet, R., (Eds.) History of Sociological Analysis, New York, Basic Books.

Goffman, E., 1959, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, University of Edinburgh Social Sciences Research Centre.

Goffman, E., 1961a, 'The Underlife of a Public Institution' in Goffman, E., 1961, Asylums. Essays on the Social Situation of Mental patients and Other Inmates Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968. First published New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1961

Goffman, E., 1963, Behaviour in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings, New York, The Free Press.

Goffman, E., 1967, Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior, Anchor Books

Goffman, E., 1971, Relations in Public: Microstudies of the Public Order, New York, Basic Books.

Huber, J., 1973, 'Symbolic interaction as a pragmatic perspective. The bias of emergent theory', American Sociaological Review, 38, pp 274–84.

Huber, J., 1973a, ‘Reply to Blumer: but who will scrutinize the scrutinizers?’, American Sociological Review, 38(6), pp. 798–800.

Huber 1974, 'The emergency of emergent theory', American Sociological Review, 39(3), pp. 463–67.

Manis, J.G. and Meltzer, B.N., 1972, Symbolic Interaction: A reader in social psychology, Second edition, Allyn and Bacon.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 20 December 2016.

Meltzer B.N., Petras J.W. and Reynolds L.T., 1975, Symbolic Interactionism: Genesis, varieties, and criticism. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Raynet Sociology Glossary, undated, available at, no longer available 20 December 2016.

Schmitt, R.L., 1974, ‘SI and Emergent Theory: A Reexamination’, American Sociological Review, 39(3), pp. 453–56.

Sociology Guide.Com, 2011, 'Sociology as interpretative discipline' available at , accessed 24 January 2013, page not available 20 December 2016.

Stone, G.P., Maines, D.R., Farberman, H.A., Stone, G.I and Denzin, N.K., 1974, ‘On methodology and craftsmanship in the criticism of sociological perspectives’, American Sociological Review, 39(3), pp. 456–63.

University of Strathclyde, undated, 'Symbolic interactionism' available at, accessed 29 May 2013.

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